16.) It appeared to me that every citizen of Inhut was there, just a few more people than belonged to our caravan, perhaps numbering fifty. They were gathered in the enclosure at the center of the town. The houses were square and unadorned, built in a circle and side by side with a wall between each one. None of the buildings were taller or wider than the others.
The people were small of stature, both men and women, and there were few children in sight. Perhaps they were hidden away. They wore clothing that were various shades of brown and gray, blending in with their surroundings, both natural and manmade. I saw neither grazing livestock, nor plots of gardens in the rocky soil, and I wondered how these benighted people survived the cold and windy highlands. Both the town and the surrounding landscape were bleak, devoid of vegetation or color.
Tomber looked like a giant among them, half again as tall as most of the adults. His grin was infectious though, and I felt my heart lighten at the sight of him. He would know if there was danger, and to see him so relaxed was encouraging.
He stepped out and shook my hand, then turned and motioned toward a small, delicate woman, who was wrinkled and bent.
“Marsianne, this is Evard Just, the man I told you about.”
She wrinkled her forehead looking up at me, as if I was an alien creature.
“Evard, this is Marsianne, the mayor of Inhut.”
I bowed to her and she appeared amused at the gesture. “Welcome to our home,” she said, her voice crackling like dry paper. “We have prepared a banquet as a celebration of friendship.”
She turned and lifted her hand. Moments later, the inhabitants of Inhut were scurrying about, setting up tables and chairs in the courtyard. The food they brought out from the houses appeared to consist of mostly stews and soups.
“Allow us to contribute to the festivity,” I said. I looked over at Toug, he nodded and quickly took command.
In the end, we provided more than half the food for the “banquet,” which we were more than glad to do. The expedition was nearing its goal, and it wouldn’t hurt to lighten our load before we attempted the mountain passes.
It was fortunate that Toug was able to scrape together a meal so quickly, because what the Inhutians offered was pretty thin gruel, though I had little doubt it was the best they could provide.
Despite an obvious effort to restrain themselves these poor people couldn’t hide their craving for the provender we provided. This was obviously a poor and backward village, with citizens who were ignorant of the outside world. When I mentioned the Thirteen Principalities, only Marsianne seemed to know what I was referring to.
The children came out of hiding for the meal. They looked malnourished, which explained the stunted stature of the adults. They stared at us with wide eyes, as if we were mythical creatures. They were especially interested in Lady Favory, who was a head taller than any woman of the village, and who seemed to glow in health and vitality. She also stood out because she had changed into a bright scarlet dress for the banquet.
The young ones approached her shyly, and touched her raiment, and then ran away. One young boy said “Goddess” before he scurried off.
Favory seemed to take all of this attention as her due. I saw her glancing over at Viccary a few times, as if to say, “See what you’re missing?”
Above us, clouds swirled through the high peaks, and I could hear the winds beyond the walls, but within the circle, it was still and quiet, except for the murmur of talk. By design or accident, the two groups were blended, with alternating seating. My people appeared to be relaxed.
No one is on guard.
How had that happened? I looked around for Marston to ask, but he was surrounded by several of the village women—apparently, his relatively small size made him attractive.
Let him have this moment.
As soon as I thought it, the urgency to post guards dissipated.
For most of the meal, Tomber sat at the other end of the table, bend halfway over to talk to Marsianne. As the Inhutians scooped up the last of the food, I motioned my Tomber over.
“Are they ready?” I asked my scout. “Will they help us?”
“Everything is prepared. We need merely load up the pack mules and head home. This will be your most profitable venture yet, Evard.”
I stared at him for a moment, trying to make sense of his words.
“Head home?” I repeated.
“The last couple loads of trinkets seemed to open up the floodgates, Evard. It appears that these people are miners, who trade precious gems with the lowlanders for everything else. You should see the mines—they go on forever, so deep you can feel the fires of underworld!”
“I’m most pleased to hear that, Tomber. We’ll certainly try to load up on our way back. But meanwhile, what of Moregone? What of the pass over the Shield Mountains?”
It was Tomber’s turn to sound mystified. “Moregone? What is that?”
I reached out and took hold of his arm, my fingers digging into him. He winced and looked down. “What’s wrong, Evard?”
“You were supposed to find us a guide over the Shield Mountains,” I hissed.
“Over the Shield Mountains?”
It was clearly a strange concept to him. I watched him try to puzzle it out and then he pulled his arm away. “I always wondered what it was you liked about this part of the world,” he said. “But I enjoy these people—they are honest and hardworking.”
I opened my mouth to argue and then wondered why. What was I so upset about?
I looked down the table at my people. It was hard to distinguish them from the villagers now. Everyone appeared very attractive to me. How had I ever believed these people to be stunted? They were merely small and delicate.
Half of them appeared to have wandered away. As I watched, Hutson the carpenter rose hand-in-hand with a young woman and stumbled off toward a nearby house.
How nice, I thought. It’s wonderful that our expedition has been such a success. Maybe we didn’t get everything we wanted…
My mind went blank for a moment. What was it we had wanted?
Marsianne appeared next to Tomber; with him seated, she was face to face with him. She leaned into him and gave him a kiss on the lips.
Strange. I’d thought the mayor old and wizened when first I saw her, but now I saw that the wrinkles were merely laugh lines and her face was lovely.
Tomber rose from his seat and swooped Marsianne into his arms. “See you in the morning, boss.”
I opened my mouth to object as he staggered away, then wondered why. What was it that was so bothering me? Everyone else seemed happy.
Toug stood by the dinner wagon, cleaning up. I wandered over to him.
He looked up at me and I could see the same confusion I was feeling in his face.
“I took by one bite of their stew,” he said. “There was something in it.”
“What do you mean?” My question was polite—but really I couldn’t seem to care.
“There is something wrong, Evard.”
I laughed. Of course, the great chef had been offended by the Inhutian food. No surprise there.
He stood staring at me for a few more moments, frowning. Then his face cleared and he smiled. “Well, I think I’ll get a start on breakfast.”
I walked away, wondering what kinds of precious stones Tomber had managed to get for us. I would ask him in the morning. There was no hurry.
A young woman approached and I recognized her as one of the village women who’d brought the food to the tables. She smiled shyly at me. “We have a bed for you, master. Come this way.”
She led me to the back of her house, where there were blankets laid upon the floor. Moonlight streamed through a narrow window. I lay down on the hard ground, and it seemed to me completely comfortable. I almost asked the woman to stay and I was pretty sure she would have, but in the end I was just too sleepy.
I closed my eyes, smiling.